Good Giving: 3 Questions to ask before buying

One of the common refrains associated with social enterprise is the idea that we “vote with our dollar.” The places we chose to spend money on food, essentials, and gifts for others (or ourselves) benefit directly from our patronage.

Motivations for spending are changing for individuals, organizations and institutions.

This applies on an individual level since most of us, at some point, have purchased something for reasons beyond a simple seller-customer relationship. Maybe it was a reusable bag or coffee mug, something from a charity auction, or maybe clothing where the company vows to do something socially responsible with a part of the purchase.

Social value and economic value are also merging at an institutional level. For example, the Government of Canada recently announced plans to invest over $800M in a social finance fund. Organizations are also beginning to grow in familiarity with and use of social procurement practices.

The action of redefining value is happening in a variety of social spheres and social enterprises are uniquely positioned right in the middle of this shift. Pursuit of a social purpose is at the core of any social enterprise, as opposed to a social purpose tacked on to the side of a for-profit business. Social enterprise also brings with it the expectation that there are multiple stakeholders benefitting from the work, as opposed to just a handful of owners. The profit reinvested through social enterprise may benefit employees, clients, communities and beyond.

These pieces of the social enterprise puzzle come together to create a formidable way for individuals, organizations and institutions to “vote with their dollar”.

While many social enterprise organizations develop their story and share it readily with the world, others may not. Some organizations may not even be fully ready to identify as a social enterprise, despite the socially valuable work they do. Social enterprise is an emerging sector and warrants continual conversation. So let’s have these conversations with the places we choose to spend.

These conversations with social entrepreneurs could be specific to their organization but, to get started, here are a few ways to investigate whether the places where you buy may just be a social enterprise:

1. What is the main reason you started your business?

A social entrepreneur would likely have a really good answer for this that goes beyond personal gain.

2. Does your business contribute to the community?

Many businesses contribute to the community in different ways, but a social enterprise will have this built into their work. The answer to this question could reflect how they provide training or employment, consistent community resources, or other outcomes that go beyond classic donations to charity.

3. What would you like your business to be 5 years from now? Or 10 years from now?

This is not officially a “trick” question, but social entrepreneurs would likely have some unique answers. Traditional businesses may be happy with where they are, or others may answer this question with financial goals. A social enterprise would answer this question by explaining the ways they could scale the social impact they’ve created. The financial sustainability piece is, no doubt, included in this plan but the primary motivation for growth is the way they are affecting lives, other organizations and communities.

These three subtle questions are a good start and having these conversations is important. What might seem to be a casual chat could end up having a formative effect, as the sector continues to grow and define itself.